Speaker says marvelous Mars Rover was a bargain

March 20, 1998


Staff Writer

The vehicle that explored Mars last summer was no bigger than a microwave, had less computing power than a Nintendo Game Boy and ran on as much power as an oven light bulb.

But it accomplished feats that earlier space craft could not at a fraction of the cost, said Matthew Wallace, operations coordinator for the Rover of the Mars Pathfinder Mission.

Speaking to about 35 members of the Hagerstown-based Southern Engineering Society Inc. on Thursday night, Wallace talked about the journey to Mars that returned scientific data and 300 photos.


The inner workings of the Rover may seem primitive, Wallace said, but he explained that his team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., was working under strict cost and weight limits.

"You didn't use something you didn't have to. You didn't polish the cannonball. You didn't spend any money you didn't have to," he said.

After three years of design work, the Pathfinder Mission launched in December 1996. Seven months later, it landed on Mars.

"When we hit the surface, we did something no other spacecraft has done to my knowledge. We bounced," he said.

The craft bounced at least 16 times.

But the team didn't know until the next morning, when the solar-powered craft was able to communicate to them, how the landing went.

"It was a frightening time for all of us sitting in mission control," he said.

As it turned out, the landing craft came to rest in perfect position to allow the Rover to come out of its protective shell and glide down a ramp to the surface of Mars.

The Rover had 84 working days on the surface of Mars, which far exceeded expectations, he said.

The team lost contact in October, but didn't officially declare the Rover dead until 1:21 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time on March 10.

At $250 million, the Rover mission might not seem like a bargain. But it is when you think that an earlier mission to Mars would have cost $3 billion in today's dollars, he said.

"I think it's given the taxpayer a much bigger bang for its buck," he said.

Wallace, 36, and his team members were surprised at the amount of interest the public took in the mission.

In one day, the Web site devoted to the Mars mission received nearly 47 million "hits," making it the largest-ever Internet event, he said.

"That was certainly one of the most gratifying things for us," he said.

The engineering involved was complex, but the pictures and movies on the Internet made it easy for people to follow, he said.

The first rock the Rover came upon was dubbed Barnacle Bill. Yogi became famous as one of the largest rocks identified.

Many of the hundreds of rocks the Rover encountered were named after cartoon characters.

There was no formal naming process. Team members just attached a sticky note to the map of rocks, Wallace said.

At the request of his nephew, Wallace named one "Simba," a character in "The Lion King."

The most-hated rock, as far as Wallace is concerned, was one appropriately named Wedge. Rover tried for a week to navigate around the rock, he said.

Scientists learned from the mission that the surface of Mars is much more rolling than previously thought, he said.

The mission was so successful that NASA has decided to use Rovers in its Mars missions for the next decade. The next one will be in 2001.

Wallace now works for Orbital Sciences Corp., which is launching a commercial satellite to take pictures of Earth.

The Pathfinder mission also tried to take pictures of Earth but, unfortunately, clouds obscured the view, he said.

It did capture photos of the Mars sky, which has a reddish hue most of the time, but in the early morning it looks almost as blue as the Earth's.

The Southern Engineering Society, founded in 1937, has about 60 members from across the Tri-State area.

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